When Day is Night & Night is Day: The Health Effects of Shift Work and Ways to Combat Them
Roughly 15 percent of U.S. workers are employed outside the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day, typically referred to as shift workers. Defined by the National Sleep Foundation, shift work is any work that occurs during evenings, overnights, rotating shifts or even the early hours of the morning.
"Shift work can add a level of convenience for some families, such as added flexibility related to child care and better pay," says Tapan Desai, MD, a Franciscan Physican Network board-certified sleep medicine and pulmonary specialist. In addition to some of the positives, he says there are drawbacks that he discusses with his patients. "Researchers have found that shift work is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, ulcers, depression, obesity and high blood pressure, along with sleep problems, such as trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and excessive sleepiness."
Lifestyle or Biology?
Researchers are studying why shift work can cause health problems. Currently at least two different causes can be blamed for these risks – lifestyle and biology.
In terms of lifestyle, shift workers may find less time to exercise regularly and may be more prone to eat a less healthy diet. These individuals also are more prone to feeling isolated, since their jobs may cut them off from family and friends.
The more significant problem with shift work has to do with biology. The body has a natural, internal clock, or circadian rhythm, that is linked to natural daylight and darkness. This rhythm tells us to sleep when it is dark and be awake when it is light. Shift work goes against most people's internal body clock.
This disruption of the natural sleep/wake cycle affects how the body functions and interferes with the natural release of hormones and chemicals in the body, leading to potential problems of the cardiovascular system, metabolism, digestion, immune system, mental health and even fertility and pregnancy.
What Can You Do?
The news is not all bad says Dr. Desai. "If you are in good health to begin with, the health risks of shift work are relatively low. Keep the risks in perspective and control what you can by making healthy lifestyle choices in the areas of diet, exercise and sleep." His tips include:
- Eat healthy and exercise regularly. Since many risks associated with shift work are tied to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular issues and blood pressure, it is extremely important to make an extra effort to eat well and exercise regularly.
- Get enough sleep. Studies have shown that shift workers sleep less effectively than traditional day workers. Shift workers should make an effort to practice good sleep hygiene such as:
- Creating a morning bedtime routine to prep the body for sleep.
- Blocking out light in the bedroom with dark shades or a sleep mask.
- Wearing sunglasses in the morning before falling asleep.
- Limiting the use of electronics before falling asleep.
- Using a white noise machine while sleeping during the day to block out daytime noise.
- See your doctor. Schedule an appointment with your physician if you are having trouble staying awake while working, or if you are having trouble sleeping during the day. Sleep studies and temporary medications can help.